Shifting SandsMay 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Janet McCue
Connie Zehr moved from Southern California to the Southern Tier in 2010, despite the warning from a West Coast friend that she’d be moving to a wasteland if she relocated to upstate New York. Instead, Connie found color, community, love, and a new art form in her adopted region.
Connie works in sand. Her art installations are ephemeral, created for a site and swept away at the conclusion of the show. Yet the images of her art remain seared into the visual imagination.
But she also makes photographs of her sand sculptures, then sends those photos to be printed on aluminum. Hanging these aluminum prints in a grid allows her to “work large and on the wall”—a new type of installation for the sculptor.
“If I was not able to document it, it would be heartbreaking,” Connie admits. “With the proper lighting, the sand photographs beautifully.”
Connie’s early work was often monochromatic, usually large sculptural shapes made with white sand. Occasionally, she incorporated wood or another object to create a shadow on the mound of sand. She often rolled out pieces of porcelain to form rods, letting them dry and then incorporating them into her sand sculpture installations.
“So it was white on white, hand-formed shapes of white clay in white sand,” she says.
When she moved to the Southern Tier, Connie enrolled in a flame course at the Corning Museum of Glass. It was a decision that would alter her art and enrich her life.
“I had never done anything with glass, actually manipulating glass, until I moved here. And it was such a perfect combination because glass, of course, is made from sand.” After taking the flame class, she realized that the shapes she was making with glass were similar to the ones she had made in clay. Her epiphany came when she saw the possibilities of glass interacting with sand.
“Since I’ve been in New York, I’ve added color,” Connie explains. By mixing dried pigment into the sand in her installations, she “discovered that the color percolates up into the glass. A really interesting phenomenon.” Her exhibitions at the State of the Art Gallery in Ithaca showcased this new and colorful bent. By featuring vibrantly pigmented sand, metal slag, and borosilicate glass, visitors saw how the ribbons of glass captured, reflected, and absorbed the surrounding colors.
At CMoG, Connie also met a community of artists who congregate at a Friday morning discussion group. The free-flowing weekly gathering “always fills up with interesting things to talk about,” she says. She also makes a point of not missing the talks and shows at the museum, and she appreciates the opportunity to continue learning. “Visiting artists who take classes are accomplished individuals. They display their work and offer insights into the process during the talks they give at their shows,” Connie explains.
It was in the Friday morning discussion group where she met fellow sculptor Cornelius “Pepsi” Lyon, creator of a forty-acre sculpture park (see the story in the August 2013 Mountain Home). Not only did Pepsi and Connie become a couple, they became artistic collaborators, too. Visitors to the C Lyon Sculpture Garden in Horseheads might find Connie’s aluminum prints on some of his steel creations; she has used his glass objects in her installations. Pepsi’s glass “skiggly wigglies,” along with colored marbles, are featured in a series of pedestal pieces Connie is developing. Titling the piece How to keep from losing your marbles, the fanciful skiggly wigglies corral the marbles in the sand installation.
When she is not mounting an exhibit, Connie can be found in the basement studio of her Big Flats home, where she works on a “really huge table” to create her art and photograph it. She feels fortunate that the State of the Art Gallery has a “very nice alcove to do a sand installation.”
As spring beckons, Connie moves out of her basement and into a live studio—her garden.
“The garden is a really important part of my life,” she admits. “Since I’ve been in New York, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with ornamental grasses and succulents. I intersperse color, and I really do like the shapes of plants. It’s a sculptural thing. The decisions I make in the garden are very close to the decisions I make in my installations.”
Rather than the artistic wasteland that her colleague predicted she’d find, Connie believes “it’s been a very positive move for me.” In a profile in the art magazine Sculpture (Nov-Dec. 2022), Joyce Beckenstein writes that “Zehr has spent six decades making work from a deeply personal perspective, gently shaping the experience of feeling empowered and humbled in nature’s presence, while celebrating art as akin to life—a transient moment in time.” Connie’s art installations have been mounted at the Whitney Museum of Art (NYC), Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Taipai Fine Art Museum in Taiwan, and at a host of other museums and galleries around the world. Local residents or visitors, if they were fortunate, might have seen Echo or The Place Between at State of the Art Gallery where she is a member of the collective. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art invited Connie to submit her art-related documents—twenty boxes of materials—into their research collections. Now an emerita professor of art at Claremont Graduate University in California, she began teaching art at the university in 1982, continuing until her retirement in 2008.
Fans can also visit conniezehr.com, where the beauty and range of her work from the 1970s to the present is showcased.